The Long and the Short of It

On the future of live art.

This week, this video from Guthrie Theater Artistic Director Joseph Haj was shared a lot.

Haj declares that nothing can replace the liveness of theatre, a tradition that has been around for centuries and centuries and will, undoubtedly, be around for centuries more. I like and respect Haj and I agree with the sentiment that he expresses: there is something indestructible about theatre. The fact that it is still around shows that it is, in some way, intertwined with what it means to be a human in civilization. The long past of theatre stretches out into a presumably long future.

But is this the sentiment we need right now? I too am not particularly worried about the long-term future of theatre and live art. I am, however, worried about the short to medium term future of theaters. By Haj’s own admission, theaters are not doing well right now. The Guthrie setting up a mini-season in March 2021is, at least, an honest admission that theatre is not going to be around for a while. (Broadway keeps pushing back their start date to still-unrealistic times.) But who is to say that March is going to be that much better? Nobody has any sense of certainty about any part of this situation; if the United States response continues to be disastrous, and no miracle vaccine is procured by early 2021, we could be in for a long, dark road ahead.

Suffice to say: in the short to medium term, theatre is not going to be OK. Many theaters have and will close. We need massive fundraising (virtual galas galore!), rent freezes, funding and bailouts. But we also need new ways of thinking about theatre, new ways of exploring its language. It’s a medium of many things: of breath, of physicality, of metaphor. Some of those languages are certainly not replicable online; some, in new and exciting ways, may be.

To be clear: some day, we will return to theaters. It’s not that theatre won’t survive in the long run—it will—but that that is, in effect, a both romantic and almost defeatist attitude. It’s a form of throwing our hands up to tradition, without doing any deeper interrogating into how theatre might be able to evolve. Haj is right that live theatre cannot be replaced by any video form (“we have a name for it”, he says, referring to performances on camera, “that’s what film is, and that’s what TV is”), but it’s not a stretch to say it can be supplemented (by amazing content like Playwrights Horizons POP masterclasses) and even expanded upon. We’re only very early on, and we’ve already seen some intriguing examples, both in the sense of actual content and in accessibility. Instead of falling back on old clichés about the durability of the live experience, we need new thinking, new forms, new paradigms, new roles that old institutions might not be able to fulfill under a limited view of what theatre can be.

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